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Buffalo AirStation Wireless USB Keychain Adapter
Getting online just got a whole lot easier with Buffalo's AirStation Wireless USB Keychain Adapter (WLI-U2-KG54-AI). Despite its cumbersome name, this keychain Wi-Fi adapter is small and light, and getting online with it is painless. The adapter is about the size of a pack of gum and weighs 0.6 ounce, making it lighter and thinner than Netgear's similar device. It even has a snap-on cover with a loop for attaching it to a neck strap or a keychain, although we doubt it will catch on as a fashion statement. For a hassle-free setup, the Buffalo keychain is a no-brainer, but those who demand high performance should get the Netgear WG111.
Inside the AirStation USB adapter is a Wi-Fi-certified 802.11b/g radio. The adapter comes with a 2-foot USB extension cord, a setup guide, a CD with software, and a 42-page electronic manual. The USB 2.0 device is powered through the USB port and is small enough that it doesn't block our notebook's empty USB slot above or below. It does stick out 3.75 inches, however, and nearly knocked over a coffee cup as we moved the notebook around. Security is adequate, with the choice of 64- or 128-bit WEP encryption or the stronger WPA security, with AES or TKIP encryption. You can upgrade the security to WPA2, but it lacks support for Cisco's LEAP security scheme, so it may be the wrong choice for connecting to some corporate networks. It's not available yet, but it should be by the end of summer. It may be available as a firmware upgrade.
With one of the quickest setup routines, the Buffalo AirStation Wireless USB Keychain Adapter offers three ways to connect to the Internet with a Windows XP computer; unfortunately, Buffalo supports only Windows 98 SE and newer operating systems, while ignoring Macintosh, NT 4.0, and Linux systems. The quickest route to the Internet is via Microsoft's Windows Zero Configuration interface, which doesn't require loading software from the CD--simply plug in the adapter to your USB port. For those who have a specially equipped, loading the software allows you to use the AirStation One Touch system (AOSS) to establish the connection. This step is redundant, as adapters are typically set to join the network right out of the box, but those new to networking may find it reassuring. Buffalo's Client Manager 2 software is simple to use and provides good connection data with any access point but lacks a histogram of network activity. Linksys and Hawking both offer this feature, and though it's not necessary, it's a nice extra for those who like to monitor their network's activity. The main screen has a signal-strength meter and information about your connection, as well as windows that allow you to survey available wireless LANs. The program also allows you to create network profiles, which you can use to easily switch between multiple network connections.
Our Labs tests were a mixed bag, with 19.1Mbps throughput at close range--less than half the throughput of Netgear's WG111 device. While this bandwidth is more than adequate for tapping into the Web via a broadband access point, it's slow for file transfers. At 200 feet, where most radios are running out of range, the Buffalo Keychain Adapter pumped out 9.3Mbps of bandwidth, making this the Wi-Fi adapter for those with lots of territory to cover or dead spots. Notebook users should be careful because the device sucked down 40 minutes more battery life on ourthan the laptop's built-in Wi-Fi adapter.
Buffalo provides a two-year warranty, which is a year shy of the coverage provided by Linksys and Netgear and far short of Belkin's lifetime guarantee. The company's Web site has general FAQs, current drivers, manuals, and an online registration page, but its knowledge base has no mention of the Keychain Adapter. Buffalo's Web site lacks helpful setup videos, an online chat room, and user forums, all of which can help reduce start-up anxiety among networking newbies. Should you have a problem, Buffalo provides 24/7 toll-free phone support, as well as an e-mail support center.